"Social activist and businessman" is a description that may have an odd ring to it, but there are people it fits. For instance, it fits the members of Tabor 100, a group of, umm, blue panthers, equipped with suits, ties and organizers rather than berets and black leather.
They are a group of 35 African-American businessmen and entrepreneurs who believe making money and making the world better go hand in hand.
With so much focus on corporate misdeeds, a person could start thinking business was all bad. But that would require overlooking the legion of small businesses that are at the core of the economy and our society.
The best small businesses have ties to their communities and act in ways that are not only beneficial to themselves but to their neighbors as well. That's the idea behind Tabor 100.
Langston Tabor, for whom the group is named, started Tabor Electrical in 1978 and grew it into a multimillion-dollar business. But Tabor didn't just nurture his business, he used his talents to encourage and mentor young people. He volunteered in a program for low-income women and lobbied on behalf of minority contractors.
Tabor died four years ago this week.
One of his good friends, L. David Tyner III, had a conversation with Tabor a few days before his death about the importance of economic empowerment — and specifically, about the concept of what a group of 100 black entrepreneurs working together with a common purpose could accomplish. Tyner brought together other friends of Tabor and in January 1999 they formed the nucleus for the Tabor 100.
There are people like Donald King of Donald King Architects, and Craig Dawson, president of Retail Lockbox. Tyner owns Tyrisco, an insurance company. One morning recently, the three of them told me about their plans.
There are three areas they want to work on: economic development, academic excellence and social equity. And because they are entrepreneurs, they lean heavily on the first as a key to the rest.
Our political and economic systems are geared toward helping big businesses thrive. Small-business owners have a harder time of it, spending much of their energy just trying to survive.
Black businesses are almost always small businesses. Tabor 100 wants to lift small black businesses out of the shallow end of the entrepreneurial pool into the deep-dollars end.
The largest of the black-owned businesses tend to have $500,000 to $5 million in revenues. It's rare for a black-run business to make the leap to the next level, $10 to $15 million a year.
Tabor 100 discussions are less about lamenting the situation and more about analyzing it and finding solutions.
The first issue they want to address is getting black people to spend money at black-owned businesses. They say a dollar recirculates many more times in other ethnic communities before moving out into the larger world than it does in the black community.
Next, they want to make connections with black professionals who have influential positions at mainstream companies, to create a network of people familiar with what local black businesses have to offer.
Third, they intend to make the acquaintance of people high up in corporations and state and local government.
They already sponsor scholarships in the University of Washington Business School, and the school is sending MBA students to spend time in black-owned businesses.
They connect with other groups whose agendas overlap, and try to avoid any competition. Several of their members are also members of the Breakfast Group, an organization of African-American businessmen and professionals who meet once a month to network.
When we spoke, Tabor 100 members were getting ready for a meeting with Korean-American business groups and had decided to add the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce to the list of business organizations to which they belong.
Because they are businessmen, they expect this work to pay off in profits, and it has already generated new business relationships. But they also say it is key to progress.
The activist you might see on TV news stories has his role, but he doesn't speak for everyone, Dawson said. The Tabor group wants people to hear a different set of voices from the black community, voices that are too often silent.
They are silent because they are taking care of business, but also, the three men say, because there are key business owners, politicians and bureaucrats who may feel they can't seem to be black for fear of alienating their larger constituency.
Those folks are not of benefit to the African-American community.
"We are here. We ask them to get involved, to bring their skill set to assist us," Tyner said.
The more black people have money, the more they will have educational choices, the ability to take care of their families and the wherewithal to uplift other people.
Tabor died just a few days after Washington voters approved Initiative 200, which banned affirmative action in public hiring, contracting and school admissions.
"I-200 made it real clear, we have to stand up for ourselves," Tyner said.
And Dawson, president of Tabor 100, added, "If we're successful, all of Seattle wins. Seattle will be a better place."